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They Is Here to Stay

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2019 was the pronoun THEY and here's why. “It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.”

Earlier this year, the American Dialect Society named they as the word of the decade recognizing the plural pronoun's growing use as a singular form to refer to people with nonbinary gender identity. The winner was decided in a vote by the body's 350 members at their annual gathering. "People want to choose something that stands the test of time and sums up the decade as a whole," said linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer. Click here for more about this decision.

Whoa. That is big and confirms the changes we have been witnessing. For several years now, folks have been letting us know their identifying pronouns. They’ve told us in their name tags: my preferred pronoun is they/them, in their email signatures, and in social media. And we’ve also been told in one-on-one conversations or at meetings and gatherings where people go around the room and introduce themselves.

Earlier this week KQED Forum (San Francisco’s NPR Affiliate) had linguist Dennis Barron discussing his recently released book, What's Your Pronoun: Beyond He & She. I haven’t yet read it and look forward to doing so soon. Hear the interesting conversation and audience questions and comments during this hour-long program at this link.

Perhaps the quickest way to get the low-dow on this topic is an enjoyable six-minute listen (or read the text) of linguist Geoff Nunburg’s Opinion Piece in Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. Click here.

No question that initially most of us find this usage jarring. Take this conversation.

“Stevie is home for the holiday break. They arrived yesterday.”

“Oh, great, did she bring a friend with her?”

“No, Stevie is here by themselves. Stevie uses the pronoun they.”

My first reaction - like that of many people - is a bit of confusion and head-scratching. Often this is followed by protestations.

“But it’s grammatically wrong. You can’t use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular person.”

Oh yes you can, and we have been doing this without a second thought when we refer to an unspecified individual. “Someone slipped a note under my office door. I wonder why they didn’t just knock.”

Living in the SF Bay Area, many of us get ample opportunity (and reminders) to practice the use of the nonbinary they and them, and little by little we are getting comfortable. As if to punctuate my point, here's a sign I saw yesterday at a cafe on Valencia Street in San Francisco.

Eventually, the use of they/them/their as singular pronouns will most likely become second nature, because language is very much alive and changing organically. These changes reflect the fact that our understanding of the world is always in flux, and that is a great and exciting thing.

My godchild Stevie asked family and friends to use the pronoun they when referring to them. And sometime after making this request, Stevie posted the following on Facebook. Please note I am sharing this with Stevie's permission.

“Hey folks, so just wanna be clear with everyone and say my name is Stevie, I am non-binary, I am trans, I use they/them pronouns. Please respect that or try your best to . . . I am more than happy to have a conversation about this, I have a lot to say, and I promise not to yell at you if you say something dumb, lol, good day.”

And Stevie has shared some of their experiences. Yes, some people are uncomfortable with this usage, and others have downright rejected their request.

“What’s more important," Stevie asked, "to feel you are speaking grammatically correct English, or to treat me with respect?”

Hands down, respect wins the day. And according to Merriam-Webster, Heritage Dictionary, the Associated Press Style Guide, and various authoritative sources, they is now a singular pronoun . . . and that means it's grammatically correct no matter that it may not yet sound right.

Speaking of respect, I am reminded that in Spanish -- one of my native languages -- there are two forms of you, the familiar for use with peers and family and the formal which we use with elders and persons we do not know. I always feel a bit awkward saying the word you in English when I would have used usted in Spanish. It takes my brain a millisecond to recalibrate. And then it remembers, this is how English works, go ahead, say the words, "it is an honor to meet you, Justice Sotomayor.”

Once upon a time, English used both formal and informal second-person pronouns: but thee/thou/thine/thy went out of favor centuries ago. And according to linguists, sticklers for grammar got plenty worked up about it back then also.

And for decades everyone who cared about grammar was perfectly content with the fiction that the pronoun he, when referring to a mixed group of people, included me and all other females.

Change happens, we get used to it, and move on until the next change comes along. Rinse and repeat.

Of course, there are slip-ups and apologies are in order when I revert back to the pronoun I once used for Stevie. When we approach this with kindness and good intentions, folks are very understanding.

Last week Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was interviewed at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on a variety of topics. She was asked about how and why she shared information about her child’s nonbinary identity on the floor of Congress. Click here to see the video of her statement as the Judiciary Committee was considering the Equality Act to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community. Her words and the emotion they convey say it all. Individuals must have the right to be who they are, and to be treated with the utmost respect, the way each of us deserves.

My one-woman show, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? is all about respect and fair treatment. We show respect by learning how to say someone's name and their pronouns. My show has a limited weekend engagement in the San Francisco Bay Area, March 6-8, 2020. If you haven't seen it check it out. Click here to get your tickets.

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